The Vatican has accepted the resignation of one of Australia’s longest-serving Catholic Bishops, leaving the future of its investigation into his conduct unclear.
Bishop of Broome Christopher Saunders resigns after 26 years
Bishop Saunders had voluntarily stood aside in March last year
Allegations of sexual misconduct were made public and he was the subject of separate WA Police and Vatican inquirires
In a statement released overnight, the Vatican Press Office confirmed Pope Francis had accepted the resignation of Bishop of Broome Christopher Saunders.
Bishop of Geraldton Michael Morrissey will administer the Broome Diocese until a new Bishop is appointed.
The 71-year-old Bishop’s final 18 months in office have been marred by controversy and questions over his conduct.
He voluntarily stood aside in March last year, after Kimberley Priest John Purnell went public with his concerns over the Church’s lack of action on allegations of sexual misconduct against Bishop Saunders.
Bishop Saunders strenuously denied any wrongdoing, and WA Police decided not to proceed with criminal charges after an extended investigation ended in May this year.
The Vatican began its own inquiry into Bishop Saunders’ administration of the diocese, led by former Bishop of Wollongong Peter Ingham, and chose to send Bishop Saunders on a six-month sabbatical outside of the Kimberley.
Bishop Ingham’s investigation focused on financial practices, and Bishop Saunders’ management of staff, including allegations of bullying. It did not concern the allegations of sexual misconduct.
Uncertainty over Vatican investigation
The findings of Bishop Ingham’s investigation were submitted to the Holy See last year, but were not made public.
However, Broome Monsignor Paul Boyers told local parishioners in June that the Vatican was continuing to investigate Bishop Saunders.
The Church has not responded to repeated inquiries from the ABC around the status of it’s investigation.
Bishop Saunders’ sabbatical ended in May, and the ABC understands he only recently returned to the Kimberley to settle his affairs.
Key positions left vacant
Bishop Saunders’ departure brings an end to a near three-year period of turmoil within the diocese.
Catholic Professional Standards were alerted to the allegations against the 71-year-old within days of them being reported to WA Police in October 2018.
However, the Church chose not to take action until March last year, just hours before news reports of the police investigation were due to go to air.
The slow process left police and some diocese staff privately appalled the Church had allowed the bishop to remain physically present in the Kimberley, and continue to preside at mass and other religious services.
Six of the dioceses’ 12 parish priests have departed since the allegations were made public, leaving many of the key positions vacant.
Questions have also emerged over the conduct of other priests under Bishop Saunders’ supervision, with one priest returning to India after being accused of sexually molesting a teenage girl in the East Kimberley.
In another case, Bishop Saunders transferred a Kenyan priest alleged to have had a sexual relationship with a parishioner, who went on to father a child at his new parish in Derby.
Former Kimberley priest Matt Digges, who served under Bishop Saunders for more than two decades, said the process highlighted the need for the Church to significantly reform its protocols for how it responds to allegations against senior clerics.
“It has shown that the church is lacking in oversight, mentorship and regulation of its most critical leaders, it’s bishops,” Mr Digges told the ABC earlier this year.